Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Wicked, Wicked Sea - article in White Horses Magazine




Of course it starts at dawn. Well, it should do, but gentleman's hours have a way of sneaking in to the southern routine this time of year. At least the snow has melted. Earlier in the week Dunedin was in blizzard lockdown, a white blanket shutting schools and shops and stopping anyone from getting in or out of the city. Winter tends to come early in these parts.
A few cars had slipped and pranged into various obstacles – idiot drivers trying to maneuver through the impossible. Hardy souls wandered the snowy streets once the wind eased, hoods and scarves pulled snug so only the slits of their eyes showed, and easy targets for warmongering school kids. No one was safe from assault with a hefty snowball.
A few white dollops still cling to shady slopes in the hill suburbs, and the odd forlorn-looking snow-person quietly melts away. Those inclined head for the coast. A typical wintery blast like this brings deep, clean southern swells. Ice-cream headachy the water may be, but nothing a decent rubber fetish can't rally the enthusiasm against.
The combination of a full moon, low pressure system and large surf is the local council's nightmare. Already there's been trouble with the recently constructed esplanade at St Clair Beach – a nicely cobbled walkway complete with half-moon lookouts, concrete balls and wheelchair access to the beach. Now the guts has dropped out of it. Huge areas of the esplanade have collapsed into a void, waves undermining the reclaimed land.
Council and contractors argue over whose fault it is and who's going to pay for the damage, and then settle on blaming the wicked, wicked sea. Must be one of those fifty-year tidal surges, they claim in the press, the type that tends to come at least once every winter.
Rubberneckers gape at the earthly wounds, tut-tutting as surfers clamber over the newly-erected safety barriers to get to the waves. Contractors scramble round in the shore break, chugging diggers through the sand to try and save what's left. The swells keep coming.
I've arranged to pick up a mate Paul around 10am, but a mini-emergency in his sparky business means his gentleman's hours fly out the window. He heads into town at sparrow's fart, while I sip a late-morning coffee at St Clair and watch the other rubberneckers, contractors and surfers.
Insipid sunlight does little to warm the day, the sky, land and ocean oozing together through a smudge-grey haze. The car park is filled with keen souls suiting and de-suiting, bare butts exposed to the chilled air as little as possible. Some old biddy next to me is having a fair ogle – nothing like cheap thrills at the beach.
The swell's dropped on yesterday, but still well overhead on the sets. And despite the tide being a bit fat, there's plenty of interest in the water. The crew spreads itself between the main beach and the point, and a few in the know saunter surreptitiously round past the saltwater pool, making out they're going nowhere special with a board under their arms.
I flick the hardworking Paul a text. He reckons he'll be ready by two, but I add an hour and figure he'll be lucky to make that. I guess owning your own business means it's hard to say no to another job. To his credit, he fudges some excuse about needing more electrical supplies, and joins me up the coast just as the tide sorts itself.
Yeah, surfing down south in winter can be a pain in the proverbial. Memories of board short freedom from my now distant youth, in the winterless north of this elongated country, has been replaced by a struggle in struggle out wetsuit rigmarole. Often you don't recognise mates in the water because they've got less showing than Mother Theresa. And yeah it gets cold, real bloody cold.
But, that's what makes this place. Paul and I share an otherwise empty A-frame, calling each other into set waves and hooting as we watch the drop. Every other day there are waves like this. If the water was subtropical, then line-ups here would be more chocker than Auckland's traffic gridlock. I'll take this just fine.
On the first day of winter, as I blow into cupped hands between sets and watch my mate paddle back out with a huge grin, I give thanks – yet again – to our wicked, wicked sea.

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